I stood near you Hidden by your girth Safe as though in an embrace. Blissfully unaware For there was little else to be known.
I knew not then that you would go How could I? For you were there before. Your presence preceded mine But now my gaze will watch you fall before ’tis time.
On the ground you shall lay This would not have been, had nature had its way. The ways of man are confounding indeed And the mark of greed is such It erases all Even the one who did the deed; (Forget ye not).
Felled when you shall be Empty space will your presence hold Like it held your form My eyes however will lose the awe With which I looked up high To see birds swing on your branches And squirrels scuttle along The owl, the parakeet, And the coppersmith barbet, busy carving out a hole.
No wings have I, But with tiny hands of a little girl I touched the surface of your bark Your cork-the cells, my skin-the pores became one. You and I, the large and small Our truth it is the same You will be gone, I bid you farewell. I too shall be gone someday.
May life beneath your bark not quiver Your roots may they not cringe. May you depart with dignity That was yours while you stood tall.
Note: I published this post first on November 26, 2020. Two days later, I removed it. A friend raised a question about the intellect’s capacity to understand Truth, and I realised then that my words were falling short of communicating what I intended to. This time the post in more true to my own experience and understanding. It will be wonderful if you read it and maybe even share your own beans of truth.
“Please excuse me, I have a book in my hands.“
That’s how precious Gora is. The 569-page masterpiece by Rabindranath Tagore is not a tome compared with the 1000-page book on mathematical theorems that my father handed me when I asked for help with a beginner-level math problem, as a junior college (high school) student. That book I was eager to hand back. But Gora, I could not put down. It revealed to me the brilliance of an insightful mind in its delicate ability to untie the strings of complex inner journeys, with a natural simplicity that brings humility and therefore joy to the mind of a reader.
What started gradually as a casual read of a page or two over my morning coffee, soon transformed into devoted immersion. I found myself surrendering to the beauty of an honest narrative that conveys insights beyond the grasp of the intellect.
Like a starved individual deprived of a meal for longer than the body can manage and mind can accept, I relished each word of Gora, with deep appreciation and abandon. How grateful I feel for this nourishment.
Gora is set in a time when women were secondary citizens of India, and yet the womenfolk in this story shone with the depth of purity, strength, and unconventional rebellion (often not illustrated in female heroes of an oppressed society). Their revolt was not that of a self-indulgent mind, it was a rebellion born of social injustice and inner awakening.
The male characters too were courageously trying to cross the chasm of ideas and beliefs that are thrust upon men in patriarchal societies. This made me think of how ideas limit an individual, while they give rise to and shape society.
Society may help organise individuals, but at the cost of intolerance for those beautiful differences that give life its shades and colour. The differences that are permitted by society divide us into groups—sectarianism is not a symbol of diversity! It leads to schisms, as we have witnessed through human history and are witnessing today in many seemingly pluralistic and liberal societies. Why else are civil rights not equal for all, LGBTQ+ included? Why is a temple being built, where a mosque once lay? Why do politicians not work with each other to serve the wellbeing of all people?
Diversity is an individual characteristic.
When we turn away from our diversity to see only a specific shade within ourselves and others, we rob ourselves of free will. The only true expression of free will, seems to me, is in our acceptance of individual diversity. Most else is a consequence of events that we do not control, if this were not true would we be worrying about or disregarding the presence of a highly contagious virus?
The characters in Gora, rise to wisdom and succumb to ignorance through their submission to gentleness, affection, trust, rebelliousness, arrogance, hurt, and hurtfulness. Aren’t these but shades of an individual? While different characters may represent each of these shades, there exists within each of us this varied spectrum displaying the richness of diversity.
How many of us have struggled at some point or the other to fit into the society we were born in? Have we never stripped ourselves of our particularities for fear of what lies outside the line? Even when we dare to venture, we find a group that we can identify with. Very few manage to step outside the line into an open space, where they reside in harmony with their changing nature.
Gora, through the interwoven lives of the characters and their individual journeys, shows how true understanding and freedom lie beyond the precincts of society, not by rejecting it but by not identifying with it. This subtle difference is illustrated in the heart’s journey towards Truth—not an absolute idea of what is correct and what falls short, but Truth as religion, manifest in its purest form as an accepting heart.
Gora, powerfully unveils the insufficiency of the intellect in solving the ills of society. The intellect by itself fails, deludes, and divides. Its ideas and ideologies, and its perceptions and reason drown in discord the consonance of an accepting heart. But beyond the reach of the intellect there flows a completely different stream of experience that challenges all ideas and perceptions. Reason cannot make sense of it and ideologies cannot restrict it. Only when the intellect surrenders to silence and when all views quieten can this flow be observed.
It is then that the intellect becomes insight, and hate is left behind.
The intellect now understands that ideas and ideologies differ, but experience is the same for you and I—your mind is agitated when you are subjected to criticism and injustice, so is mine; your mind hurts when your dignity is demeaned, so does mine; your mind fears the threat to physical safety, so does mine. When I acknowledge your right to emotional and mental wellbeing your mind is at ease, so is mine; when you stand up to safeguard my self-respect my mind rejoices, so does yours; when we can trust those around us our mind is in harmony, collectively.
Tagore wrote of this truth; S.N Goenka pointed out this truth; You and I can live this truth, if we choose to. All we need to do is to let go of ideas and ideologies, and surrender to silence.
Feminine in English (Oxford Dictionary) is defined as having qualities and an appearance traditionally associated with women, especially delicacy and prettiness. In German, one of the definitions of feminine is too soft/weak. In Russian, a set of characteristics traditionally associated with women come under the definition, and one of the characteristics is readiness for sacrifice. In Arabic, a synonym for the word feminine is not strong enough, along with delicate, classy, beautiful.
As a single woman in her forties who has left youth behind, and who has and never had an “innate” desire for motherhood that seemingly comes naturally to our lot, I see myself turning time and again to the question about what is feminine and what is femininity? Is the feminine in me linked to my appearance, a set of qualities, or to missed motherhood?
At a social visit, where I went wearing a new and radically different look—from decades of long hair to a short-cropped haircut, it wasn’t just accepted or commented upon, not by my female associates. I was told that celebrity women cut their hair short in the forties to look young—a trend in Hollywood, apparently.
It just so happened that I had turned forty-one that year and crossed the line that justified this new look—justification is usually a longwinded denial of reality, and short hair of ageing.
Till then it hadn’t occurred to me that I needed to look young now that I was in my forties. That’s when I decided that if I cannot age comfortably then appearance as a concept linked to femininity is one that I shall not accept. To imagine youth and being young as beautiful, and anything other than that as a reality that must be denied is subscribing to propaganda of the beauty industry.
One part of my question about what the feminine in me is linked to collapsed like a melting glacier, shrinking my dilemma by one third. While shedding part of a problem is welcome, losing sea ice is not! If we wish to refer to the Earth as Mother Earth and feminise nature then this analogy is appropriate.
Assigning characteristics to nature, to women, or to any group of individuals for that matter is a way to subscribe to generalisations and to straitjacket diversity. That’s why the trouble with accepting people who are transgender, queer, or homosexual.
We romanticise nature as being beautiful, pure, nurturing, healing, and therefore feminine, while we ignore that nature is also furious, destructive, violent. Does that make her masculine at such times? For one who has lived through a tsunami or an earthquake, nature is not beautiful and healing.
I see purity and beauty in me, as much as I witness in me fury and violence. This either makes me both feminine and masculine, or it renders characteristics redundant in describing gender.
This left me with the third part of my question—motherhood. Across the world, motherhood is celebrated as the pinnacle of a woman’s life. By giving motherhood a miss, was I shortchanging myself, or was I defying nature by not fulfilling the role it had assigned me in the cycle of life?
I like children and I enjoy their company. A child’s wonder and curiosity are more enchanting than the self-assured worldliness of us adults. They keep the simple as it is, while we take the joy out of the simple with our complexities.
Despite this appreciation of children, I was not inclined to motherhood—whether through adoption or childbirth. I am not an anomaly; there are others like me, and this makes the desire for motherhood in women a questionable belief: Another generalisation that makes it hard for us to accept our diversity. Black lives do matter; LGBTQ is a gender; He is human first, an African migrant later; She was a girl till we made her a Dalit girl.
Without appearance, stereotypes, or motherhood to define femininity, where lies the link with the feminine? Perhaps, in being afeminine—no, this isn’t a spelling error.
The afeminine woman does not strive for equality with men, she endorses equity (fairness) towards all beings. She does not punish or pardon a criminal, she helps develop a culture of inner-transformation (example: Kiran Bedi, who the NY Times called an idealistic reformer). She shows that courage lies in resolving differences, not ignoring or perpetuating them.
When she—the afeminine woman—calls out to her daughter to clear the table, she tells her son to do the dishes. She teaches both her daughter and her son to respect modesty as a virtue. She does not try to be the linchpin of the family, but instead encourages tolerance, interdependence, and moral sustenance. Dignity of labour, for her, encompasses her role as a homemaker, and the kitchen is as emancipating as her desk. Motherhood is a matter of personal choice, appearance is a happy countenance, and qualities that matter are those that help develop her character.
I would like to thank Nandini Patodia for her sensitive reconstruction of Brothers of kin in Hindi. Our hope is the message in this poem reaches far and wide across India. The original poem in English is available on: Brothers of kin.
ओ मेरे देश के पुरुष, भाई हमारे, स्वजन हमारे एक बार फिर तुमने तहस नहस कर दिया है अपने अन्तर का सुकून. स्त्री की आत्मा का हनन कर तुमने कलंकित खुद अपनी रूह को किया है शक्ति के प्रदर्शन में, लिप्सा और लोलुपता भरी जहालत में, क्या थी ख़ुशी तुम्हारी ? तुममें भी तो है एक स्त्री शर्म से सिकुड़ गयी होगी तुम्हारे भीतर की वह माँ. रो उठी होगी वह, कि वह थी जन्मदाता, एक पुत्र एक भाई, एक पिता, एक दोस्त की. ओ भारत के पुरुष, हमारे आत्मीय बन्धु आहत किया है तुमने, तुम्हारे ही अपनों को. क्या तुम अब पहले से बेहतर नींद सो पा रहे हो? ह्रदय में हाहाकार मचाता गीत सुन पा रहे हो? व्यवस्था का इंसाफ, शायद हार भी जाए , लेकिन तुमने तो, न्याय के शिकंजे तुम तक पहुंचें, उसके पहले ही कर डाला है अपना विध्वंस अपनी करतूत से बच नहीं पाओगे तुम हो तुम अब बस अपने घुटनों के बल पर, उठ सकते हो तुम, या गिरना चाहोगे… निर्णय तुम्हारा है. स्वजन बन्धु, याद करो तुम्हारी गर्भ के भीतर की धड़कनें, दिन पर दिन जब बीतते जायेंगे वही, हाँ वही धड़कन गूंजेगी तुम्हारे कानों में; जब लहू का कतरा कतरा तुम्हारा बहता चला जाएगा और साँसें छोड़ देंगी साथ, फिर कभी न लौटने को.
उठो, उठो…और दिखाओ वह पौरुष जो हमारे सम्मान का हकदार हो.
We women speak. Hear our voice against the injustice of rape. Take heed of our words oh brothers of kin, for they will save you from your own downfall.
To all girls who have been raped, and brutally beaten and murdered, your voice is ours; In these words are your words, because our flesh and spirit is one.
Oh men of India, our brothers of kin, Once again you have destroyed The peace of your mind. In destroying the spirit of a woman You have disgraced your own. What joy lay in power displayed, In lust and greed and ignorance? You too carry a woman in you The mother within you cringed. She cried for she gave birth to a son A brother, a father, a friend. You hurt your own, oh men of India Our brothers of kin. Do you sleep a better sleep now? Do you hear your heart sing? Justice in a system may fail But you failed yourself even before justice could deal its hand. You can’t escape what you have done You are on your knees now You can rise, or you can fall. You choose. Oh brothers of kin, remember your heartbeat in the womb As you pass through your days For that very heartbeat will echo in your ears when your blood drains and your breath leaves never to enter again.
At sea is a story of a migrant girl, Ngozi, and her journey from Nigeria to Libya, and from there to Italy. Like my previous stories, it is a work of fact and fiction. I have researched interviews with migrants and weaved parts of their experiences and personal stories into Ngozi’s story. At Sea gives an outline of the existing political and economic reality of migrants in Libya, Africa; however, the story has been written for older children. Each child is different, therefore I will let you decide the age of the children you wish to share it with.
When I read the note that UK-based artist Banksy sent to Pia Klemp, activist and captain of several NGO boats that had rescued migrants in the Mediterranean Sea, I was inspired to research the struggle of migrants and refugees in Africa.
In his note, Banksy wrote: “I am an artist from the UK and I’ve made some work about the migrant crisis, obviously I can’t keep the money. Could you use it to buy a new boat or something? Please let me know. Well done. Banksy.”
With splashes of pink and Banksy artwork—a young girl with a heart-shaped buoy (similar to his famous Girl with Balloon mural), The Louise Michel makes a statement just like Banksy’s graffiti. The boat and crew rescued approximately 350 people in less than a week since they set sail.
The Louise Michel’s rescue work is an expression of solidarity and responsibility, as is clear from Banksy’s note and is evident in Pia Klemp’s outlook on rescue missions. She said: “I don’t look at sea rescue as a humanitarian action, but as part of an anti-fascist fight.”
Fascism isn’t just a political ideology, it is deeply rooted in greed. No more than the greed of capitalist and mixed economies that in their hunger for natural resources (aka oil, gas, and minerals) feed fascist regimes and militia.
Generosity may be the only qualified response to greed—both fascist and capitalist. Generosity in thought, in stance, and in our choices, as exhibited by Banksy and Klemp, not to be confused with humanitarian handouts that are at best charity from the haves to the have-nots.
When we allow greed to destroy the dignity of all, by taking away the right to live safely and securely, we pull apart the fabric of life—our life included. We need to take a stand, not by embracing a particular ideology, but by moving beyond ideologies to extend a heart-shaped buoy.
Click on the image above to access the e-book. It’s for all to read.
I don’t need to read the news to learn about the effects of climate change. From my window, I regularly watch sea waters bulge and come far out onto the back shore, much beyond the high-water line. Where I used to gather shells as a child, today I see discarded plastic waste spewed by the sea. I see oil deposits in low tide. I look at skies oppressed by heavy smog, and I take a deep breath only to be appalled by what I inhale–the repugnant smell of chemicals.
I hear the voices of scientists who know that humanity is in big trouble, and have been saying it repeatedly since 2004 or about, when they recorded that permafrost in the Arctic has begun to melt. I hear the voices of those who care, and tirelessly keep trying to remind others of why we all need to care. And I hear voices of ignorance, so engrossed in chatter that they believe, without foresight, a pandemic can erase the imprint that we have left on this planet. It makes me sorry to think that this is how we cope with both the climate emergency and the pandemic.
My own voice, where amongst all can it be heard? At first, it sounded like an echo–I was repeating what scientists had to say, then as I started to feel the heat of a speedily warming planet, I started to sound like those who were tirelessly trying to remind others of what’s important and urgent. And then I grew silent, because neither worked to change anything around me. From silence came this short story, a modern-day fable. Through a mix of non-human characters–aquatic, avian, terrestrial, and even celestial, I have tried to focus on the innocence of life, while exploring its diversity. It’s a bittersweet story, accompanied by a long and interesting fact sheet.
Please do read, By the Bay–a short story of seven pages with a fact sheet that’s four pages long. I request you to read it also to your children and share it with children who you may know. Click on the image below to access the story.
I woke up this morning before the darkness of night had faded. All were silent, except for the wind. It howled while it made its way through gaps between my room windows, quietening as the light of dawn transformed silhouettes into objects.
A gentle rain began to fall—a passing shower really. It washed all it touched, a morning ablution that seemed more ceremonial than seasonal (it’s monsoon in India right now). It cleaned the dust on the pinnate fronds of the Coconut Palm in the garden, leaving the feather-shaped leaflets to glisten in the morning light of the tropical sun that shined as the clouds dispersed.
This sequence of events is not part of a story. It does not lead to a connected event. The following event was rather incongruent: I walked away from the window, and stood head bent, staring at my phone screen.
This is really how our days are, aren’t they? A sequence of events that are stitched together by our mind. Some events energise us, some enervate us, we forget some and some we hold on to, weaving together our personal stories. We pick and choose the most self-aggrandising events to build our social reputation. We use the sensational ones to create news, and we keep ourselves entertained by repeating the ones that involve others. That’s how we roll—making stories out of events. But, your life, my life, and the lives of all those we read and speak about are not stories. Is the heartbreak you experienced at losing a loved one a story, or can you feel its numbing pain somewhere deep inside? Is the joy you felt at a random act of kindness a story, or does it soothe your weary mind when it replays itself in memory?
Life then is not the narrative in our head. It is being lived through our experiences. Your experiences can caution me, guide me, inspire me, and mine can do likewise for you. This seems like the only worthy exchange between two individuals. Where then is the conflict? We learn from each other and we support each other. Or, we could if we tried, especially given our interdependence on this mutual exchange.
Maybe my experience of the transition from darkness to dawn to sunrise will inspire you to see the lyrical beauty of an ordinary morning, and then we will move on, grateful that we could share an experience. Nothing beyond. Because there’s really little else that can be shared.
“There are those who do not realise that one day we must all die, but those who do realise this settle their quarrels.”